Go Away and Other Advice for Graduates

A little known fact about GovLoop Founder Steve Ressler is that his sister (moi) is an English teacher, and that I too have my own website (it’s just not nearly as popular) called VocabGal about teaching vocabulary. However, I mentioned to Steve that I could write occasionally for his website about different crossover issues like writing or, in today’s post, about advice to give to graduates.

Because teachers are poor, we can’t afford to give gifts at the many graduation parties we attend, so I started giving graduates my advice on what to do in college (or life) based on my own past experiences. Enjoy and modify as you see fit, just don’t forget to mention that you got it on GovLoop!

Ms. Ressler’s Unsolicited Advice for College/Life

  1. Be excited about every day! In college, there was a lecture, poetry reading, improv performance, club meeting or art show to attend every night of the week (in addition to class)! I reveled in the innumerable daily activities. In the words of my dorm room poster with a picture of a fish in a bowl: “The fish is in. He is always in. If he goes out, he’ll die. You, however, have no excuse.” Enjoy every moment!
  2. Talk to your professors (or potential mentors). I had one class in college that no matter how hard I studied, I could never get an A. I still regret not going to that professor for advice on how to prepare. Professors have office hours so GO and get to know them, get advice for their class, maybe even get a free trip to a foreign country!
  3. Go away (I mean this nicely). Travel as much as you can; I had no idea how provincial my views were until I went to England. If you can’t fly, drive –get out of your state-explore the United States, Canada, Mexico etc. Your adventures will be unforgettable.
  4. Class is expensive-so go. In 1995, I estimated that each college class I attended cost about $200, based on my tuition at the time. Fifteen years later, I know this rate is higher, so make sure you schedule classes that you will be awake for and willing to attend. A mind, and the tuition paid to nurture it, is a terrible thing to waste. P.S.-Take as many classes as you can for your tuition bill. I took five each semester rather than the normal four and ended up at a higher pay grade in my first job because of it.
  5. Go to the writing center, student studies center, career services center etc. Part of that expensive tuition above is also being used to fund the centers that will help you writer better, learn more, and get a job when your four years are over. These invaluable centers of learning are underutilized so you look astute just for showing up, and become even more sagacious after heeding the advice of the people there
  6. Be an academic, but not be a perfectionist. This is one of the hardest lessons to learn in some ways. I have always loved academics because I love to feel erudite, but for too long I stressed over grades that in the end, were not always the true reflection of the learning I had done. Enjoy your learning, work hard at it, be proud of your accomplishments, but do not berate yourself if you are not always perfect. You are, after all, learning for your edification, not for letters in the alphabet.
  7. Seek out students from other countries. I was intimidated by foreign students as a freshman, but my roommate from India was so much fun! By getting to know many different students from all over, I broadened my worldview, had really interesting conversations, and ate amazing ethnic foods. Plus, if you invite a foreign student home for Thanksgiving, you get a place to stay when you travel abroad (quid pro quo).
  8. Volunteer for a good time. I went on two Habitat for Humanities Spring Break trips and paid less than $50 each for a week with friends, food and fun. I gained so much more out of helping someone else than I would have doing nothing on a beach-plus I got to see Texas and Florida for free. Side bonus: the more I helped others during the school year (as well as on spring break), the more I appreciated my own education and opportunities.
  9. Promote yourself. This advice I learned after college, but I think it applies to everyone. I have gotten my consulting job and joined an awesome literary blog because I took the initiative to talk to the company/e-mail the bloggers and suggest what I could do for them. I followed through with what I promised, and now I have had amazing and enriching experiences because I swallowed my fears of being rejected and/or embarrassed and asked for what I wanted.
  10. Never stop learning. I think I was obnoxiously smug throughout my college career, thinking I knew so much more than older adults did, being so caught up in my amazing experiences, and feeling like I could be better than all those who came before me. I am now more humble and recognize how much I still must keep striving to learn how I can be a better teacher, leader, learner, parent, and lexicon aficionado.

Essentially, I urge you to be adventurous and value your opportunities. Enjoy the ride!

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Jeff Ribeira

Awesome list! I wish I had learned #2 earlier in my college career. Once I learned that professors weren’t “scary” and really are there to help (the majority of them at least…) I had some really great experiences and started to enjoy my classes a lot more.

Mark Hammer

You’re a good sister, Sarah, and I imagine an excellent teacher, to boot.

Excellent advice all round. I would only add to it that the purpose of education is to learn and grow, not to “get it over with”. Many of the areas on your list are pieces of advice to counter the perspective adopted by far too many that you “get through” school.

And, while it would seem to be increasingly irrelevant advice (or be seen as such), GO TO THE LIBRARY! You won’t believe how much you can learn by simply tilting your head, reading the spines of the books in your field, and stumbling onto things you never realized existed. As an undergrad, I used to go to the current periodicals and browse through the table of contents, and many of the abstracts, of some 300 journals a month. I’ve been on-line since 1985, and can say with conviction that the web is NO substitute for that.

Finally, I don’t want anyone to defer “real life” too much, but education gets more fun the higher up you go. Don’t confuse the irritation of high school or freshman classes of 500+ with what happens in graduate studies. Early education is playing “Chopsticks”…again and again and again, middle education is playing the notes on the page, exactly as written, but higher education is jammin’, baby, feeling the groove sublime, and wailing with fellow musicians. It can be your own personal Phish concert, only you’re in the band.

Mark Hammer

Graduation advice?

Sure. Be open to career possibilities. Many graduates are intent on getting the sort of job they always thought would follow their program. There is a universe of jobs out there, that you’ve never heard about before, that might not seem connected to what you paid tuition for, but can still make excellent, productive, and meaningful use of your training. Maybe even better than the kind of work you hoped to be heading for. And if it doesn’t work out, feel free to move on. Employers hope you’ll stay, but they understand that people can make some mistaken and hasty choices when starting out.

Sarah Ressler Wright

Thanks everyone for the awesome feedback!

Thanks Mark for your posts-I LOVE your other tips- definitely going to include going to the library (ahhh microfilm reams, I miss you so) and browsing the area of study -I found so much more research when I just browsed the area of study.

I also think that if more people were open to career possibilities,we would have less unproductive members in every field!

Andrew Krzmarzick

Great stuff, Sarah! Anyone who uses the word “sagacious” is pretty darn cool in my book.

A variation on #8: Work for a meaningful experience.

Throughout my college career, I found myself asking two questions:

1 – How can I do something with my career that matters, that directly helps people?

2 – How the heck am I going to make enough money to put myself through school?

So I blended the two and did work during college that was meaningful and paid the bills…like working at a group home for teenagers with disabilities and running a homeless shelter one summer. Turns out I made more money for doing those kinds of jobs, too, than food service or TA’ing….plus, I have some extraordinary stories to share from hanging out with all kinds of interesting characters.

Greg Mt.Joy

I’m with Jeff–I wish I’d made more of an effort to meet professors as an undergrad. I did better at it as a grad student and the payoff was immense. Thanks for the post, Sarah.